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August 17, 2002 10:18pm
Adieu to Red-Light Districts?
Source: UK Reuters
by: Joelle Diderich

(PARIS, FRANCE) -- "Irma La Douce", the fictional Paris hooker with the heart of gold, could soon be forced off the streets as France mulls whether to switch off its red-light districts.

After facing AIDS and competition from refugees from eastern Europe and Africa, prostitutes are now threatened with eviction as France's new conservative government pledges to crack down on the sex trade.

"They hear the news too, and they are very afraid," said Gabrielle Partenza, a former prostitute who works with the Bus des Femmes (Women's Bus), a mobile centre which scours the streets of Paris dispensing free condoms and health advice.

Centre-right parliamentarian Francoise de Panafieu started a political debate on prostitution when she suggested France follow in the footsteps of Germany and the Netherlands and reopen its famed brothels after more than 50 years.

But the idea triggered a conservative backlash in a country that generally prides itself on its liberal attitude to sex.

Hardline Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy outlined proposals to deport the scores of illegal immigrants, many in the grip of organized crime, who ply their trade on the busy boulevards that ring the French capital.

Prostitution is not illegal in France, but active soliciting and pimping are. While the debate over national policy rages, local authorities across France have started taking matters into their own hands.

Socialist leaders at Paris City Hall hope to eradicate prostitution completely with plans for heavy fines and prison sentences for clients similar to those introduced in Sweden.

In cities including Lyon, Orleans, Strasbourg and Metz, mayors have issued local decrees banning prostitution on the grounds that it blocks traffic and disturbs residents.

Champagne and Theme Rooms

"It's as if we are going back 30 years," said Gaelle Tequi, spokeswoman for Cabiria, a group working with prostitutes in the southern city of Lyon. "All the work we have done in the last 10 years is about to be destroyed."

The Lyon ban, approved on August 1, has created a climate of fear among prostitutes forced to scatter from their old spots.

"The consequence of this is that they will go underground, in dark corners where nobody can come to their rescue if they are attacked," said Tequi, adding that prostitutes may be more under pressure to accept unprotected sex.

"They are going to have to turn tricks in a rush. As they will be in a hurry, they will be forced to be less tough with customers."

In theory, Panafieu's proposals for brothels similar to the "Eros Centres" that exist in Germany would take care of the problem by giving France's estimated 18,000 prostitutes a safe and clean place to work.

In their heyday, Paris brothels like the "One-Two-Two" and "Le Sphinx" featured cabaret entertainment and extravagant theme rooms, hosting illustrious guests like the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec or actor Humphrey Bogart.

Britain's future King Edward Vii, then Prince of Wales, had his own room at the opulent "Le Chabanais", where he was said to frolic in a giant copper bathtub filled with champagne.

"Everybody went to the brothel," said Alain Plumey, curator of the Erotic Museum in the Paris red-light district of Pigalle.

"They had shows, the food was good and they had a merry party atmosphere. You could either hire a girl or not. In fact, most of the clients didn't," he added.

Shouting To be Heard

Health workers and prostitutes paint a slightly less glowing picture. They say the 19th century brothels and their modern equivalents force women to work long hours, as they have to give up a large chunk of their earnings to the owners.

"It's a completely moronic idea," scoffed Partenza, a tough, husky-voiced woman who worked as a street prostitute for 30 years. "I haven't yet heard a single woman, and I know a lot, who would agree to work in one of those."

She said the problem with all the proposals voiced so far is that they make no distinction between self-employed prostitutes and women from Albania or Sierra Leone, for example, who are effectively sex slaves controlled by criminal gangs.

Foreign workers, some as young as 14, began flooding onto the local market in the mid-1990s and now make up 70 percent of the prostitutes in Paris and just over half nationwide, according to the latest Interior Ministry figures.

"They are everywhere. They disappear, others arrive," said Partenza. "Many of them don't speak French at all." She believes Sarkozy should focus his repression efforts on pimps, rather than sending these women home to an uncertain fate.

"We have some very good laws that are not being applied," said Partenza. "Right now, we have the pimps under our very noses and they are still there."

Most importantly, prostitutes are demanding that their voice finally be heard. They are threatening a march on Paris unless they are included in future discussions on their fate.

"What bothers us is that people are thinking in our place, talking in our place and deciding over our lives in our place," said Partenza. "We know how to talk. We're not all illiterate and we have ideas."

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